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Journal Issue: Adoption Volume 3 Number 1 Spring 1993

Statistics on Adoption in the United States
Kathy S. Stolley

An Overview of Adoption in the United States

In actual practice, adoption encompasses two different types of arrangements. It occurs through both formal and informal processes. Formal adoption occurs when a legal recognition of a parental relationship is made. Informal adoption occurs when the birthmother allows another person (or persons), usually another family member, to take parental responsibility for her child without obtaining legal approval or recognition of that arrangement.10 Informal adoption arrangements involving networks of real and fictive kin appear to be widespread in the black community.11 However, there is a marked lack of information about the prevalence and particularities of such arrangements. Therefore, the data presented here deal only with formal adoption as practiced in the United States.

An examination of national estimates of the number of formal adoptions reveals that there were 50,000 total adoptions in 1944 (see Figure 1). The number of adoptions steadily increased, hitting a peak of 175,000 in 1970, then declining to 104,088 domestic adoptions in 1986, according to NCFA data.4,8 (See Box 1 for an overview of 1986 data.) Based on AIIP data, there were an estimated 118,529 total adoptions in the United States in 1990.12

For a more complete picture of adoption in the United States, the number of total formal adoptions must be divided into two categories: related adoptions and unrelated adoptions. Related adoptions include stepparent adoptions and those cases in which a child is adopted by a nonparent relative. Such adoptions may often formalize a preexisting parenting arrangement for the child. Unrelated adoptions are those in which a nonrelative child is adopted. Therefore, unrelated adoptions are more likely to involve a real change in parenting for the child with the establishment of new parenting and sibling relationships for the child and the adoptive family.

The number of related adoptions increased from 38,200 in 1951 to 91,141 in 1982 (see Figure 2).4,8 However, according to NCFA data, this number dropped markedly to 52,931 in 1986.8 Because the majority of related adoptions involve stepparents (primarily stepfathers) adopting a stepchild, this drop may be a reflection of the decreasing rates of remarriage in the United States13 or may indicate that fewer stepparent families are undertaking formal adoption.

During that same time period, the number of unrelated adoptions increased from 33,800 in 1951 to a high of 89,200 in 1971. That number then declined to 49,700 in 1974 and has remained close to the 50,000 mark since that time.4 In 1986, the number of unrelated domestic adoptions occurring in the United States was 51,157.8 Thus, these latest estimates reveal a rather even division between related and unrelated adoptions.

Adoption Arrangements

The means by which adoptive placements are made have also undergone a great deal of change during the past four decades (as shown in Figure 3). In 1951, 18% of unrelated adoptions were arranged through public agencies, 29% were arranged through private agencies, and 53% were independently arranged (meaning a third party, such as a doctor, attorney, or member of the clergy, handled adoption arrangements between the birthmother and the adoptive parents). The percentage of adoptions arranged through public agencies increased slowly and has more than doubled since that time. This percentage has remained relatively stable at 38% or 39% since 1972.4,8

Private agency adoptions also increased, accounting for 40% or more of all unrelated adoptions from 1962 through 1973. However, since 1973, the percentage of private agency adoptions has declined, returning to 29% in 1986.4,8

The percentages of independently arranged adoptions declined to a low of 21% of all unrelated adoptions in 1971 and 1972 then fluctuated, rising to 31% in 1986. However, this is still a substantially lower percentage of placements than were independently arranged in 1951.4,8 The decline in independent adoptions reflects actions undertaken by states to clarify placement regulations after groups such as the Child Welfare League of America expressed concern over problems with independent adoptions. Additionally, Senate hearings during the early 1950s on black market adoptions also brought attention to the issue of agency versus independent adoption.4

Thus, recent estimates indicate that almost two-fifths (39%) of all unrelated domestic adoptions are handled by public agencies. Independently arranged adoptions and those handled by private agencies account for similar percentages of unrelated domestic adoptions (31% and 29%, respectively). Of the 104,088 total domestic adoptions occurring during 1986, 19.3% were unrelated adoptions arranged by public agencies, 14.5% were unrelated adoptions arranged by private agencies, and 15.4% were unrelated adoptions which were arranged by private individuals. The other 50.9% of adoptions were related adoptions.8

Disrupted Arrangements

Disrupted adoptions are those in which the child is removed from the home before the adoption is legalized. This is contrasted to adoptive dissolution, or the breaking of already legalized adoptions. There are no national estimates available on the numbers or percentages of disrupted or dissolved adoptions. Instead, information on adoption disruption comes from a variety of studies. Thus, estimates of the number of disrupted adoptions vary widely based on the population sampled and the calculation techniques used; however, research indicates that disruption rates are increasing.

One review of the literature on adoption disruption suggests that this is a reflection of the concentration in the pre-1970 research on placements of very young, nonhandicapped, white children. Of such adoptions, only 1.9% disrupted.14 More recently, with the emphasis on placement of children with special needs (as discussed below), higher rates of disruption are reported, ranging widely from 3% to 53% depending on the group being studied and the calculating techniques being used.14,15 "Current estimates indicate that approximately 10% to 13% of all adoptive placements disrupt."16 Placements of older children and children with records of more previous placements and longer stays in the foster system are more likely to disrupt.14

Although accurate figures are also not available on what happens to children after adoptive disruption, it does appear that many do go on to a successful adoptive placement.14 This implies that it is crucial that children be moved through the placement system as quickly as possible, rather than kept in the system for extended periods. These figures also suggest that a disrupted adoption does not mean that the child is "not adoptable." Rather, it implies that adoptive parents should be fully informed and prepared for the challenges that adoptions of such children might pose.